Premier Doug Ford, who is set to unveil his new cabinet Friday morning, was re-elected because opponents “underestimated” his appeal to voters, insists one of his key advisers.
Top strategists from the four political parties told the Star’s Martin Regg Cohn at the Democracy Forum at TMU that Ford’s personal brand resonated with Ontarians on June 2 despite the challenges of COVID-19.
Nick Kouvalis, the premier’s pollster, said “the Ford brand” was a key reason why the Progressive Conservatives won 83 seats in the 124-member legislature up from 76 in the 2018 election.
“One of the big mistakes the Liberals made was making this about Steven Del Duca versus Doug Ford. Had they gone party brand versus party brand, I think they would have done better,” Kouvalis said Thursday, noting the enduring popularity of the Liberal brand in Ontario.
“We never looked at (Liberal leader) Steven Del Duca … and underestimated him … but I think they underestimated (Ford),” he said, suggesting the Tories’ rivals “bought into” a narrative that Ontario fared more poorly during the pandemic than other jurisdictions.
“The general public actually thought he did a pretty good job and that relative to (Quebec Premier François) Legault and relative to (departing Alberta Premier) Jason Kenney and relative to (former federal Tory leaders) Andrew Scheer and … Erin O’Toole, he was doing a pretty good job.”
Michael Balagus, the NDP campaign chief, said his party detected the same thing when polling people who normally switch between voting for the New Democrats or Tories.
“What was very, very clear with those voters is that they were unwilling to blame Doug Ford for anything that happened in the pandemic,” Balagus said at the forum at Toronto Metropolitan University, formerly known as Ryerson.
“And they have lots of things that went wrong. They give you a list this long … but they were the fault of his bad advisers, his terrible cabinet ministers, the media, the doctors, forcing him to do things — none of these were his fault,” said the New Democrat, whose party won 31 seats, down from 40 in the previous election.
“I think Nick’s absolutely right: Doug Ford’s personal brand was incredibly important in terms of the Conservatives’ ability to win that campaign.”
Christine McMillan, the Liberal campaign manager, agreed with Kouvalis’ assessment that the Tories’ massive cash advantage also hurt Del Duca’s chances.
“Going back to what Nick was saying about the premier’s personal brand — that absolutely plays into all of this as well,” said McMillan, whose party won eight seats up from seven in 2018.
“I think the premier did a really good job of kind of creating his own Teflon in some ways,” she said.
Becky Smit, the Green campaign chair, conceded that her party was unable to capitalize on leader Mike Schreiner’s performance at the televised debate, which many observers believe he won.
“I agree with Christine. We all were trying and, in our case, I think we did inspire people … but the lesson learned for us is changing that inspiration into votes on election day,” said Smit, whose party maintained its single seat in the legislature.
Pressed by Cohn on how the provincial Conservatives effectively neutralized COVID-19 vaccines as a political issue by forcing MPPs and candidates to get their shots, Kouvalis said that “inoculated us.”
“I mean, I don’t think the federal Tory leadership could even tell you how many of their caucus members were or were not vaccinated. They were afraid to even go ask the question,” he said, referring to the Conservative Party of Canada.
Kouvalis praised Ford, campaign manager Kory Teneycke, chief of staff Jamie Wallace, and principal secretary Amin Massoudi for being decisive and agreeing to eject anyone who refused to get vaccinated.
“We had 70-something members and you only need 63 to have a majority, so you might as well just cut your losses quick and burn out the bleeding and move on,” said the veteran pollster, who has also conducted public-opinion research for the Star.
“It sounds rough and terrible … but our advice to the premier … was ‘You’re going to get slaughtered if you keep these people in your caucus,’” he said.
“So if they don’t want to get the vaccine because they have some objection, that’s great, that’s their choice — and they can’t be in our caucus.”
The Democracy Forum event came as Ford is putting the finishing touches on his new cabinet, which will be sworn in at 11:15 a.m. Friday at Queen’s Park.
“It’s the most challenging thing with any premier. You have 83 very, very qualified people and some are going to be in cabinet and some may not. But we have a great team,” the premier said earlier this week.
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